In Japanese Zen gardens, “each element in the Zen garden is symbolic; stones represent mountains, sand represents water, and moss represents islands” (source: see Moss Acres link below). Each element plays a role in a miniature natural scene of great beauty.
My favorite, the fern moss, is a spitting image of larger ferns with broader frays narrowing toward pointed ends. The fern moss is ideal for shaded areas and needs minimal sunlight. The fern moss, which are relatively flat, can be complemented by other moss. The tree moss, or Hair Cap moss, has the appearance of a miniature tree. Each unit grows taller and in clumps, which more effectively represents the look of an island. Likewise, the Cushion moss, grows in distinctive rounded clumps. This gives the appearance of islands a midst the bear earth or sand, which may represent the water or sea. The moss featured in the photo above of the famous Ryoan-ji Zen Garden in Kyoto, appears to be tree moss. This particular rock has always reminded me of the famous Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Oregon.
Mosses in Japanese rock gardens provide a very clean design and manicured appearance. Unlike grass, most all mosses are highly resilient and adaptable, and less vulnerable to extreme weather conditions of heat or cold. They simply go dormant. The moss’ unique biological structure enables it to grow places where most plants cannot, as it prefers nutrient-poor soil. Moss is able to absorb pollutants such as nitrates and ammonia, as well as humidity and nutrients directly from the air. This is why you find mosses growing virtually anywhere and on anything!
A useful tool for our daily lives, is a simple ritual the monks of Saiho-ji (near Kyoto) established for their visitors. Reminiscent of my own childhood calligraphy lessons in Tokyo, visitors to this famous moss garden and temple sit and write or trace the characters of a Buddhist scripture (sutra) while the monks chant in worshipful trans-formative music. Looking back at my calligraphy lessons at Japanese public school, this ritual is related to the calligraphy art form, which emphasizes a spiritual connection by the calligrapher with the peaceful flow and natural order of each Kanji character.
From here, visitors walk the paths of the temple and gardens, and perhaps meditate at the most famous dry Zen garden, Ryoan-ji. “Moss is the grounding element, an island of green around many of the 15 iconic rocks edged in raked white gravel,” as elegantly described by Susan Heeger of Garden Design Magazine (see link below).
Here are a few informative websites about moss: